CARACAS, Venezuela -- Opposition lawmakers and aid groups warned Sunday that an unprecedented nationwide blackout in Venezuela was causing a rising number of deaths.
"What Venezuelans are living today looks like a science fiction movie," said Juan Guaido, the opposition leader who is spearheading a U.S.-backed campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro.
At a news conference Sunday, Guaido said at least 17 deaths had occurred at hospitals as a result of the power failures. Fifteen of them were in the eastern city of Maturin, he said.
Meanwhile, a medical aid group, Codevida, said it had reports of 15 people who had died as a result of kidney failure linked to the lack of power.
It was not possible to independently confirm the reports. The Venezuelan government has released little information on the blackout that entered its fourth day on Sunday.
Maduro tweeted on Sunday that the electrical system "has been the subject of multiple cybernetic attacks that forced its collapse and have hurt the efforts to reconnect it nationally. Nonetheless, we are making great efforts so that, in the next few hours, we will restore power in a stable, definitive form."
Power returned in some Caracas neighborhoods Sunday. In Guarenas, a working-class suburb, electrical service returned early Sunday, but electricity failed several hours later. Long lines formed outside bakeries, supermarkets and gas stations that had power.
Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said schools, public offices and industries would be closed today as the government works to revive the grid, but he did not provide an update on progress.
Venezuela has specifically blamed the U.S. for the blackout. Maduro said Sunday that the "macabre strategy" to make Venezuelans desperate and turn them against each other would fail.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said the military had deployed to protect Venezuela's power installations from saboteurs.
"We know who's behind all this," Padrino Lopez said.
Officials with President Donald Trump's administration have denied involvement in the blackout, attributing the power failures to years of underinvestment and poor maintenance.
Few Venezuelans seemed optimistic that the government would succeed in reviving the electrical grid. Guaido -- who has been recognized as interim president by the United States and more than 50 other countries -- called for new protests today in response to the blackout.
Maduro, who counts Russia and Cuba as allies, says Guaido is a collaborator in a U.S. coup plot.
On Sunday, residents gathered in larger numbers than usual at springs in the mountains of Caracas to collect water and scrounge for cash to pay for food in the few shops that were open.
Witnesses reported overnight protests and confrontations with police in a few Caracas neighborhoods, and the remains of makeshift barricades and burned debris were seen at some intersections.
"If I could, I would take the little that I have and leave the country," said Renee Martinez of Caracas. "This is unbearable. Here, everything is scarce and now power is as well."
Alexis Reynoso said he left his home in the Venezuelan capital Sunday morning to try to buy water and food, but most shops were closed. He said those that were open only accepted cash, because the power shortage made the use of debit cards impossible.
With the bolivar, the local currency, in short supply, some people started to dip into stashes of dollars, which get more valuable in Venezuela every day because of hyperinflation. University student Juan Gutierrez said Sunday lunch for his family cost $20 -- a small fortune in a country where the monthly minimum wage of 18,000 bolivars amounts to less than $6.
"You have to pay in dollars and it's so expensive for us," Gutierrez said.
Oscar Hernandez was buying candles Sunday at a supermarket in East Caracas. "I'm preparing for Armageddon," said the engineer, who said his family had used up its supply during the blackout. "The government is too incompetent to fix it in the short term."
Alicia Medina said she had been looking for ice all day to try to preserve the food she has at home. "I went to 10 places and nothing," she said outside a grocery store in East Caracas.
Gym trainer Carolina Pardo was parked Sunday with about 20 other cars on the side of a major Caracas highway. She and the other drivers were on their cellphones.
"I know I look like a crazy lady," Pardo said. "But this is the only place I can get a signal in the entire city, and I need to communicate with my mom, who lives abroad."
The lack of power has left hospitals depending on generators -- if they have them. It has also shut the Caracas metro and virtually halted public transportation, meaning medical personnel can't get to their jobs.
On Sunday afternoon, a 24-year-old woman sat weeping in a chair outside the hospital at the Central University of Venezuela. "My baby just died," she said. "There was no pediatric surgeon."
The mother, Alexandra Amundaray, a parking-lot attendant, said her 5-month-old son, Emanuel, had been suffering from dehydration in recent days. On Sunday morning, when he awoke, he was pale and cold, she said. She managed to get one of the few functioning ambulances in the city to rush him to the hospital, where he was treated at the emergency room for a blocked intestine, she said.
"They went looking for a pediatric surgeon," she said. "And then he died."
The director of the hospital, Earle Siso, said in an interview that no patients had died because of the power failure; a generator was providing electricity for emergency cases. He denied that there was a shortage of medical personnel.
"Our biggest problem is the international blockade that's been in effect since the era of President [Barack] Obama," he said.
But, shortly before talking to a reporter, Siso was surrounded by doctors and nurses complaining that their colleagues hadn't reported for work.
A woman waiting outside the emergency room for a doctor to see her 6-month-old daughter, who was suffering from a bacterial infection, said she had been told only one doctor was working Sunday in the pediatric ward. The woman spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying she feared government retaliation.
Most of the hospital's corridors were dark Sunday, and there was no running water at the facility. Elias Urbaez, a cardiology resident, said that Sunday was his day off but that he had decided not to return home. He relies on public transportation, and he was worried that he wouldn't be able to get back for his shift today.
Urbaez was dressed in the same plaid shirt and lavender tie he had worn to work on Friday, when he got a ride from a neighbor. The doctor had been washing in a basin of water, "but then the water ran out," he said. In the evenings, he wrote reports by the light of his cellphone.
What would happen if the diesel to operate the generator gave out? "All the doctors are obviously afraid of this," Urbaez said.
Information for this article was contributed by Mary Beth Sheridan, Mariana Zuniga and Andreina Aponte of The Washington Post; and by Christopher Torchia and Jorge Rueda of The Associated Press.
A Section on 03/11/2019
Print Headline: Blackout turning deadly in Venezuela